Aesthetic Engineering: The Imagination Cycle

Monday, December 20, 2010 5:16 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)
If you’d like to treat your hearts and minds to a new body of work by an internationally renowned artist in an almost ideal setting, don’t miss this new show of Ginny Ruffner’s latest work at the Bellevue Art Museum. Artistic Director Stefano Catalani and his staff have done a masterful job of re-staging and designing this exhibit that was originally developed by the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner where it was first shown in 2008.  

Like all great art, this show is difficult to describe but it’s an exuberant and wildly imaginative exploration of what would happen if entities that possess neither genes nor the ability to reproduce (at least as far as we know) were able to cross-pollinate, exchange DNA and merge into each other. Among other things, you see “The Gene for the Grace of Falling Leaves,” “Floral Splashing,” “The Force That Shapes Seashells,” and what happens “When Lightning Blooms.” You’ve been warned; be sure to arrive with your mind wide open.

In case the title of this show doesn’t make it completely clear, you should know that although Ginny Ruffner is an artist, deep down inside, she’s really a geek. It all started in high school when she was president of the Science Club and it has been seeping into her art ever since. Her current circle of friends and regular correspondents includes an impressive assortment of distinguished scientists and mathematicians. She is fascinated by all the cool sciences and she finds them no less mystical, mutable, and mysterious than the so-called arts. In other words, Ginny has never believed in sorting things into separate piles of what does or does not constitute the realm of artistic endeavor; no matter what kind of information her muse sends, she uses it. 

Although Ruffner’s titles and concepts are fantastical and outrageous, her work is more intellectual than emotional. Inspired by rigorous and challenging ideas -- evolution, the expression of DNA, the origin and nature of consciousness -- she applies her own personal torque and tension to them. The result is a kind of corkscrew logic that merges the solid and the uncanny and makes you suspect that these strange genetic connections have always existed but we never realized that they were there until she showed them to us. When asked where these ideas come from, she shrugs and demurs: “Who knows? I’m just an output device for these messages from the cosmos.”

Captured in mid-contortion, Ruffner’s creations look like they’re trying to do the Fibonacci, to swing and sway or twist and turn into something entirely new and improbable. Although they are beautiful, warm, and ethereal, they also harbor a shimmering undercurrent of darkness, mystery and secret intentions They sometimes seem as curious about you as you are about them, ready to stretch out a tentative tendril (or is that a tentacle) and pull you closer for a little friendly mind meld.

My favorite piece, full of magnificence and menace, is the towering double helix called, “Tall Artistic Creativity Gene.” Elegantly suspended from the high ceiling of the BAM lobby and trailing a bower of glass flowers at its feet, this delicate but imposing structure of metal and glass seems as if it might suddenly break free and begin spinning and spiraling toward you, bent on gently rearranging your polypeptide chains. It’s a fitting introduction to an exhibition that gradually unveils the unbridled spookiness and audacity of this artist’s imagination.

While she was still working on the pieces in this show, Ruffner asked her friend and Nobel laureate, the biochemist Kary Mullis, if he thought it was arrogant of her to create her own model of the DNA molecule. He wrote back: “None of the existing images can even come close to capturing this snapping, glowing, sizzling, writhing, freaking King of Molecules. There are no humanly conceivable images. It’s up to you to look at these things and imagine something yourself.” Which is exactly what she’s done.

So leave your slide rule at home, forget everything you know about the boundaries between art and science, and go catch a glimpse of what the world might look like if evolution began making stuff just for the fun of it. Or maybe, with a little nudge from Ruffner, it already has.

And if you’re interested in learning more about the life and work of this remarkable artist, check out the new documentary, “Ginny Ruffner: A Not So Still Life,” directed by Karen Stanton and produced and released this year by the Seattle-based film company, ShadowCatcher Entertainment. It won the Golden Space Needle award at the Seattle International Film Festival this summer and is being screened at several other film features around the country. You can find out more about it online at

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain is a Seattle-based freelance writer and bibliophile who follows art and is a big fan of the double helix.

Ginny Ruffner’s exhibit, “The Aesthetic Engineering: The Imagination Cycle,”  is on view through Febraury 6 at the Bellevue Arts Museum which is located at 510 Bellevue Way NE in Bellevue, Washington. For more information please call (425) 519-0770 or visit the website

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